Another (Early) Wave

By Leslie Walker
Thursday, March 9, 2006 1:09 AM

Today's the last day of the four-day Emerging Technology conference, and I'm flying home to D.C.

What I saw convinced me that another really big wave of innovation is rolling through the Web, though I also realize that it's still in the early stages.

The magnitude of the wave may not become apparent until we are all drowning in new online software that everyone is telling us we really must check out - even though we've barely learned how to use the last set.

The alpha geeks who attended ETech included many of the coders and engineers who shaped the Web software we use today. They see a transition underway to a second-generation of Web software, which is why they call this emerging batch of new sites "Web 2.0."

To see what they're talking about, check out online word processor Writely or the paid-advice-over-Internet-telephony service called Ether. Have a look at classifieds aggregator Edgeio, or PodBop, which lets people search for band podcasts by geography.

Hundreds of clever (and yes, goofy) sites are popping up every few months, many using more advanced Web software to implement old business ideas that died when the Internet bubble burst in 2001.

By whatever name this innovative era goes, my feeling is the Web is gearing up to take us on another wild ride. And since resistance is futile, I won't try to hang on tight.

Let it rip!

Windows Live Looks Promising

Thursday, March 9, 8:15 a.m. ET: Microsoft is burying some nifty new services under some really dorky brands. I am talking about "Windows Live."

On Wednesday, the company released revamped beta versions of its Windows Live and Web search services. Microsoft execs were showcasing both here at ETech this week. While Web search grabbed the most attention -- especially the new slider scroll bars that let people see more search results faster -- the revamped Live caught my eye.

Before noting what's useful about it, I have to say I hate the way Microsoft is slapping the Windows name on all its new Internet services, instead of using the MSN brand it spent a decade developing. Sorry, Bill Gates -- the Internet is not an extension of your operating system, no matter how many "Windows" you put on Web sites.

And there are plenty either announced or launched -- Windows Live Local, Windows Live Mail, Windows Live Messenger, Windows Live Safety Center and Windows Live Favorites, to name just a few. Oh, and don't forget Windows Live Expo. "Expo" is for classified listings, get it?

With that rant out of the way, I do like the idea behind the revamped Windows Live start page. It's highly customizable, loads faster and is full of dynamic little pop-up windows that give previews from other sites without having to visit then.

The fancy Live.com page that Microsoft execs showed here packed a lot of information into a small space. It also offered software "gadgets" that display dynamic data, such as clocks for various cities and a dictionary that shows a new word every day.

But when I tried to personalize my version, the results weren't half as good. Not only was the page slow to load, it was short on help files and repeatedly crashed my browser.

Live.com is still in beta testing, of course, and I imagine Microsoft will shake out the bugs fairly quickly. Then it might be worth taking for a spin.

Touch the Future

Wednesday, March 8, 3:55 p.m. ET: One gadget drawing oohs and aaahs here was a touchscreen tilt-top table that lets people manipulate images appearing on its electronic surface with both hands and multiple fingers.

Dubbed a "multi-touch sensor system," it was 36 inches wide. New York University professor Jeff Han showed how to manipulate data displayed on the screen by using his fingers to move images and video around -- drawing on the screen as if his digits were paintbrushes, or pulling images to make them bigger.

"The future of interfaces is multi-touch," Han told the crowd. "This stuff is really ... coming out of the lab just now."

Han acknowledged that his "infinite desktop" prototype (Quicktime video here) is not new, but said the NYU team had taken a design approach that reduced its cost and boosted its resolution.

The high point of his demo came when he projected more than 180 video channels from Time Warner cable on his illuminated table all at once, creating a stunning patchwork of moving images that he could zoom in and out of at will.

Fixing the Attention Deficit

Wednesday, March 8, 2:15 p.m. ET: Former Microsoft vice president Linda Stone delivered a diatribe against the "always on, anywhere, anytime" high-tech lifestyle that puts people in a state of "continuous partial attention" and leaves them feeling "overwhelmed, overstimulated, and unfulfilled."

"Improving quality of life" should be the new mantra of technology, Stone said, because the biggest opportunity for new businesses will lie in helping people see information in ways that lead to understanding, wisdom and a better life.

"It seems to me that the new opportunity is to move from being 'knowledge workers' to being 'understanding and wisdom workers,'" Stone said.

A World Unto Itself

Tuesday, March 7, 5:05 p.m. ET: A demo of a fast-growing virtual world called "Second Life" grabbed attention here. This immersive online community has more than 150,000 residents, nearly half of whom have been active in the past 30 days. Created by Linden Labs, Second Life is built and owned by its members, who buy and sell virtual stuff from each other.

Linden Lab vice president Cory Ondrejka said Second Life residents have exchanged $800,000 worth of goods just in the last 30 days, including 240,000 distinct virtual objects. Residents also sent one another 75 million instant messages in the same time period.

Ondrejka said academics have used Second Life for researching schizophrenia by creating "virtual hallucinations" and developers have created games there that have turned into big hits with members, including one that is about to hop into the real world as a Nintendo Gameboy game.

I found the demographics fascinating -- fully half of Second Life's activity is by women, who are slightly outnumbered by men but are more active, according to Ondrejka. Oh, did I mention it's free to participate? No subscription required, but if you get addicted, better hang into you wallet.

Making It Hip to Clip

Tuesday, March 7, 2:52 p.m. ET: Ray Ozzie, Microsoft's chief technical officer, showed an intriguing new "clipboard" software tool for copying and pasting info between Web sites.

The little program, still in development, also would let people copy and paste data from a Web site to a computer or vice versa, basically by piggybacking on Windows' existing clipboard program. Ozzie showed how users could click on a little scissors icon to access a menu with "copy" and "paste" options allowing them to zap info back and forth.

Ozzie showed how his clipboard might lift structured data automatically, so someone could grab their billing address from the PC and drop it into a form at a Web shopping site.

Down the road, Ozzie suggested, similar software could make it easy for people to swap all kinds of info between Web sites. He showed how one might create a "current location" sliver of data that you could store, say, on MSN Spaces, and have it automatically delivered to other sites such as Friendster. It could automatically display where you are by reading data from your cell phone.

Too bad he chose to demo a "current location" broadcasting alert, which seemed scary to me. Can you imagine, if criminals are having a field day now at teen social hangouts like MySpace.com, what they'd do if people starting blaring their whereabouts on the Web?

Still, the Web clipboard demo was nifty, though Ozzie noted Microsoft couldn't make it work unless Web users decided they really wanted it.

"The bottom line is this: I believe there is power in simplicity," he said.

"If we as a community decide to extend something like the clipboard to the Web, it could be really useful," he added.

Don't Blink or You'll Miss It

Tuesday, March 7, 1:37 p.m. ET: The theme of ETech this year is the name of a four-year-old book, "The Attention Economy," meaning what happens in a world of information overload. As the Internet fire hose blasts us with too much information, attention becomes more valuable than ever.

Conference moderator Rael Dornfest told the crowd that Web aggregators and instant-communication tools today are bombarding people with information. Tomorrow's success stories, he added, likely will involve filtering and focusing.

"I think there are some great businesses to be built on giving you less," said Dornfest.

SF's Sterling: Everything Will Be Searchable

Tuesday, March 7, 12:34 p.m. ET: You've got to love a conference where the host invites a famous writer to deliver the opening speech, only to have the writer read the host's own work aloud in mock ridicule.

So it went Monday night when famed science fiction writer Bruce Sterling opened the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference (dubbed "ETech") here in San Diego with a speech about the coming Internet of Things. Sterling read out loud from host Tim O'Reilly's writings about what O'Reilly calls the "Web 2.0" technologies shaping the Internet today -- a smattering of stuff like open-source software (applications that treat the Internet as a development platform) and Web sites that harness user input.

Sterling, idol of geeks everywhere, wore a black leather bomber jacket and funky blue tie over black duds as he addressed a ballroom full of 1,000 self-described " alpha geeks." Dropping his leather jacket on the floor behind him, he poked fun at the idea that anyone could make sense of "emerging technology" while it was still emerging. Besides, if you really break down the components of Web 2.0, said Sterling, they amount to "a roll call of social improvements."

But Sterling was taking issue with the phrase "Web 2.0," not the ideas behind it. His speech was a satiric literary bomb hurled at the tech industry's inability to come up with helpful language to describe new ideas and innovations. Sterling said the computer industry made major missteps decades ago by calling those early math machines "computers" and then coining phrases like "artificial intelligence" and "intelligent machines" to describe them- -- phrases that stuck and shaped how people viewed computers throughout the 20th century.

"Computers are not smart in any useful sense of the word," Sterling declared "They don't think. They don't have any intelligence."

Had the early pioneers adopted better words to describe what computers do -- "ranking and sorting," instead of "thinking" -- someone might have invented Google 20 years earlier, he added.

Sterling warned against "freezing the language" too early. Yet he seemed to spend a lot of time trying to do just that -- freeze the language of the future right now, especially with the word he has coined for what today's technologists often call "ubiquitous computing," the coming world in which physical objects increasingly are tagged and tracked wirelessly over the Internet.

Sterling wants us to call these futuristic objects "spimes." That's the word he came up with to convey the idea of objects assuming new identities once they are tagged electronically and have vast amounts of data linked to them -- data that can be tracked and sorted and ranked, just like Google does with Web pages.

His word appears to be a mash-up of space and time: "I call an object like that a 'spime' because objects like that are trackable in place and time."

Sterling didn't talk much about the future world of spimes, but you can read about them in his recent book titled "Shaping Things" or at his blog. The sci-fi visionary encapsulated his ideas in humor by saying spimes will let people engage with physical objects better, thanks to their "auto-magical inventory voodoo."

"With a search engine of things, I no longer hunt for my missing shoes in the morning. I just Google them," he quipped.

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